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Ofsted and Care Quality Commission inspectors say ‘significant concerns’ must be addressed urgently over Suffolk SEND services

Education and health watchdogs have said there are ‘widespread and/or systematic failings’ leading to ‘significant concerns’ about the experiences and outcomes of children and young people with SEND in Suffolk.

Inspectors from Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) have said the Suffolk Local Area Partnership (LAP), which is made up of Suffolk County Council and health partners, must ‘urgently’ address these concerns.

As a result of this inspection, which took place in November last year, His Majesty’s Chief Inspector requires the LAP to prepare and submit a ‘priority action plan’ to address the identified areas for priority action.

A protest with parents of SEND children outside Suffolk County Council in Ipswich last year. Picture: Ash Jones
A protest with parents of SEND children outside Suffolk County Council in Ipswich last year. Picture: Ash Jones

The inspection report, which was published today, says a monitoring inspection will be carried out within about 18 months.

Suffolk County Council, the NHS Suffolk and North East Essex Integrated Care Board (ICB) and NHS Norfolk and Waveney ICB are responsible for planning and commissioning services to meet the needs of children and young people with SEND (special educational needs and/or disabilities) in Suffolk, as part of the Suffolk LAP.

The LAP has apologised to families and commits to urgent action to strengthen and accelerate improvement plans following the inspection.

Suffolk County Council HQ
Suffolk County Council HQ

The areas identified for priority action are:

♦ The LAP should work more collaboratively and effectively to improve strategic planning. This needs to deliver systems with measurable impact that will create better experiences and outcomes for children and young people with SEND;

♦ LAP leaders should cooperate to take urgent action to improve the timeliness and quality of the statutory Education Health Care Plan (EHCP) processes, EHCP needs assessments, and EHCPs and annual reviews. This should ensure that plans meaningfully capture the views and aspirations of children and young people with SEND and their families, so that they get the right support at the right time.

EHCPs are legal documents specifying the SEND support youngsters must receive.

The inspection report said: “Children and young people face a system that has not worked well for a long time. They and their families have not seen the improvements they should from the area’s leadership.

“Their needs are not identified quickly or accurately enough. Assessments for support take too long. When the right help is put in place, it is often only at the point of crisis.

“As a result, children with education, health and care (EHC) plans in Suffolk achieve less well in school than similar pupils elsewhere, and are much more likely to be excluded and to find themselves not in education, employment or training (NEET).”

Campaigners say they are seeing no improvements to SEND services in Suffolk despite a £1.7 million spend on consultants. Pictures: Submitted
Campaigners say they are seeing no improvements to SEND services in Suffolk despite a £1.7 million spend on consultants. Pictures: Submitted

The report said since Ofsted and the CQC inspections raised serious concerns in both 2016 and 2019, leaders ‘have not urgently or effectively addressed systemic and significant weaknesses in the SEND provision in Suffolk’.

Many longstanding issues, particularly the quality and timeliness of EHC plans, parental dissatisfaction, and high proportions of children and young people with SEND being excluded and becoming NEET, have remained ‘unresolved issues’ over this time, the report said.

The report said too many families were ‘not heard’ and communication was poor.

“The reality that parents experience is that their children get lost in the system and fall through the cracks. Families resort to making complaints to receive the support they have a right to and need”, it said.

In terms of what the LAP needs to do better the report said:

-The LAP’s SEND strategy has had a limited effect in the areas that matter. Leaders have done a lot, but have focused overly on activity and not enough on impact;

-The local area’s oversight and accountability have not been effective;

-Because of the systemic gaps in identifying and meeting needs, there are high numbers of families at crisis point. Rather than pre-empting issues, the local area partnership ends up firefighting. This is having a negative effect on services;

-There are very long waiting times to access some neurodevelopmental assessments;

-Leaders do not do enough to work successfully with parents and parent groups that voice concerns, including the Suffolk Parent Carer Forum. Extremely high numbers of families go through mediation, but there is little evidence that families find this helpful or supportive;

-While relatively few appeals get upheld at tribunal, a significant number of complaints that are made to the Local Government Ombudsman are upheld. Families feel that legal routes are their only option;

-There is not enough residential special school provision within the local area for disabled young people. The provision that is in place is of a high quality. Most disabled children and young people in residential special school provision are placed out of the county;

-Leaders’ work to improve the statutory EHC process has not been effective, leading to unacceptable delays and gaps in support. The timeliness of completing EHC plans is getting worse. The average wait is twice the statutory deadline;

-The LAP has struggled to recruit sufficient numbers of educational psychologists, and this has exacerbated already long delays for families waiting for an EHC plan;

-There is some improvement in the accuracy and coherence of the newest EHC plans, but even here the quality is patchy.

In terms of what the LAP is doing that is effective:

-In some areas, the LAP has worked successfully to improve services. For example, it has redesigned speech and language therapy and occupational therapy services. This has resulted in reduced waiting times for assessment and intervention;

-Strong levels of capital investment have increased the availability of special school places;

-Initiatives to equip professionals in schools, such as the online tool to support schools, Valuing SEND, or ‘VSEND’, are showing early signs of impact;

-Many providers, such as schools and colleges, praise their relationship with the LAP. Some say the LAP has enabled their own journey of improvement. Leaders of schools and colleges are keen to be part of the solution to the SEND issues in Suffolk;

-Social care teams are effective;

-Several health teams support families sensitively and successfully.

A statement issued by Suffolk Parent Carer Forum, the consultative partner for SEND services in Suffolk, said: “The recent SEND inspection in Suffolk which includes Suffolk County Council Education and Social Care Departments, and the Health and Integrated Care Boards reports widespread, significant failings to the experiences and outcomes of our children and young people with SEND.

“These failings include long waits, needs not identified soon enough, varying educational health care plan quality, lack of child’s voice, missed annual reviews and preparing for adulthood with poor communications and even more need to complain. Too many families are facing crisis.

“This sad reality has been the situation for too many, for too long. Families are offered apologies and promises of improvements but very few are feeling them. We know that a large number of appeals are upheld at tribunal and complaints upheld by the local government and social care ombudsman.

“It is the hope of Suffolk Parent Carer Forum that this report will serve as a turning point with the priority action plan and £4.4 million investment.

“The forum is keen to work with the improvement board and will continue to push for real change that will be felt by all families, giving Suffolk’s children and young people the support and services they need, when they need them.”

“We would like to thank the children, young people and families of Suffolk as well as support groups for their feedback and contributions in making the voice of lived experience heard during the inspection.”